I love traveling, but there’s always this snag that comes up. As a pianist, I get antsy if my fingers can’t find a piano to play. I become irritable; my skin breaks out.
My obsession to locate a piano when away has led me into some weird and wonderful places, including a defunct Parisian furniture factory storing a sad Steinway put out to pasture; a sanatorium in Berlin whose Heintzman belonged to a deceased patient; even a damp basement in Algeciras’s army barracks where a beautiful Bosendorfer rested at ease. These pianos had been neglected, but they served me well.
In Nantes, I befriended Beatrice, a flute player whose ‘den’ was a restored jail cell. The acoustics were great, but her Yamaha piano was missing as many keys as most 80-year-olds are teeth! “It’s going to the piano crematorium in two days,” she announced without a trace of sadness. Sitting in a ‘chair’ that resembled some kind of Inquisition contraption, I proceeded to play Debussy’s ‘Little Shepherd’ – a symbolic piece of music for this relic facing the death sentence!
On a merrier note, I discovered Mexico is user friendly to piano players. In San Miguel de Allende, I wandered into Whiskey Monkey, a New Orleans piano bar. I asked if I could ‘tickle’ the notes on the Baldwin. It appeared to be in good shape, so Pepe, the owner urged me give it a go. There I was playing Bach and Brahms in a jazz bar!? Diners were either highly inebriated or had grown tired of hearing the same jazz standards, but Pepe – having had a few drinks himself – invited me back the next night. I became a regular at Whiskey Monkey for the next week.
There I met José. He owned the pharmacy in the centre of town. “I have a 200-year-old library in my house with an equally old piano. But like wine, it has grown sweeter with age.” Handing me his card, he told me to knock on his door between 10:00 and 11:00 AM any day. “Lupita, the maid will let you in, and I’ll come down.”
I jumped at the opportunity. His bell-like sounding no-name upright inspired me to attempt a Brahms Intermezzo. It was a heavenly experience. I was inspired for sure by the plethora of paintings surrounding me – biblical saints staring down from the lofty walls. Bach’s ‘Ave Maria’ had to be played. The next ten mornings transformed into a sonorous ritual: José would come down in his pyjamas, ask Lupita to bring us coffee, and for over an hour I would play. Jose would sit listening and then he would begin to tell me fascinating stories about his ‘famous’ ancestors – also painted and framed alongside the angels.
My spiritual epiphany happened in Prague’s 13th-century Klementinum inside the sublime Hall of Mirrors concert hall. I heard a hypnotic quartet perform. There was no stage. The piano was a Petrof. I had never heard of this make. Its sound was godly. After the musicians left, I felt compelled to play this 19th-century miraculous instrument. I became intensely engrossed in its exquisite, rapturous sound. I recall I played Massenet’s Elegy Melody, some Satie and Walter Carroll’s Sea Idylls. I heard nothing except the notes. I lost all sense of time and place. Waking from this reverie, I stood up to hear another sound: clapping! People had quietly re-entered the hall, perhaps thinking I was a tag-on unannounced artist; the concert wasn’t over. It was funny yet moving for me.
My quest has taught me each piano has its own personality along with its owner. Some are tired souls; others bright and self-assured. Unplanned, these piano meetings have created many amusing experiences, not to mention the friendships that have formed along the way.